Topic: Education and Child Policy

Trump, UC Berkeley, and the Federal Funding Whip

A President may not find it simple or straightforward to use direct executive orders to cut off funds to universities that tolerate disruption of speech or exclude speakers based on the content of their speech. (That’s this morning’s Presidential tweet story, if you slept in.) But the power that the Department of Education and allied agencies have gathered to themselves over university life has steadily mounted, often against feeble resistance from the universities themselves, as in the Title IX instance. That gives an administration plenty of handles to make its will known, a process previewed in October, as to Trump, by Chronicle of Higher Education correspondent Steve Kolowich, who also spoke to me for the story. He quotes Alexander Holt, an education-policy analyst at New America, saying: “I could see a Trump administration going crazy on these ‘Dear Colleague’ letters.”

Two years ago I cited several examples of rule by Dear Colleague letter, as I called it, in this area. (More here.) And I noted one big problem with invoking judicial oversight to check the federal government’s power:

It may be difficult to persuade a college to serve as a test case, given the annihilating possibility of a federal funds cutoff as the penalty of its presumption.

University administrators have submitted meekly for years now to rule by federal “Dear Colleague” letter. Now it will be Trump appointees writing those letters. If the administrators wish to retain some measure of independence from control by Washington, D.C., they may need to grasp that the hour is growing late – and that it wasn’t such a good idea to grow dependent on the federal dollar in the first place. (adapted from Overlawyered). 

Politicians: Hopelessly Naïve about Government

There are numerous causes of federal government expansion, including special-interest pressures and the ability to borrow-and-spend endlessly.

Another cause was highlighted in a recent story about a Bush-Obama education program: politicians are excessively optimistic and hopelessly naïve about their ability to solve society’s problems top-down from Washington.

Neal McCluskey mentioned the failure of the School Improvement Grant program the other day, but I wanted to highlight the Washington Post summary because this is such a classic failure:

One of the Obama administration’s signature efforts in education, which pumped billions of federal dollars into overhauling the nation’s worst schools, failed to produce meaningful results, according to a federal analysis.

Test scores, graduation rates and college enrollment were no different in schools that received money through the School Improvement Grants program — the largest federal investment ever targeted to failing schools — than in schools that did not.

The Education Department published the findings on the website of its research division on Wednesday  hours before President Obama’s political appointees walked out the door.

The School Improvement Grants program has been around since the administration of President George W. Bush, but it received an enormous boost under Obama. The administration funneled $7 billion into the program between 2010 and 2015 — far exceeding the $4 billion it spent on Race to the Top grants.

The school turnaround effort, he told The Washington Post days before he left office in 2016, was arguably the administration’s “biggest bet.”

He and other administration officials sought to highlight individual schools that made dramatic improvements after receiving the money. But the new study released this week shows that, as a large-scale effort, School Improvement Grants failed.

It is excessively optimistic and hopelessly naïve to think that a new federal spending effort would turn around the nation’s schools after that approach has not worked for five decades. But the Post reveals how deep the blind optimism was in this case:

Some education experts say that the administration closed its eyes to mounting evidence about the program’s problems in its own interim evaluations, which were released in the years after the first big infusion of cash.

The latest interim evaluation, released in 2015, found mixed results, with students at one-third of the schools showing no improvement or even sliding backward.

Even then, Duncan remained optimistic about the School Improvement Grants, which he said had — along with the Race to the Top grants — unleashed innovation across the country.

For more on the causes of government growth and failure, see here and here.

DeVos Moves On, and So Does Choice vs. “Accountability” Debate

In a committee vote the tightness of which surprised no one, this morning President Trump’s nominee for education secretary, Betsy DeVos, was approved on a purely partisan basis by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee. DeVos’s nomination now moves to the full Senate.

While the rhetoric surrounding DeVos has been heavily targeted at her competence, the main issue seems to be that Democrats generally oppose private school choice programs while Republicans generally do not. Even questions about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) at DeVos’s confirmation hearing—would she support attaching IDEA rules to public funding that disabled students could take to a chosen school?—were primarily about choice.

Choice is fundamentally different from public schooling. With choice, families have real power—the power to leave a school not serving them and take their education dollars elsewhere. This is why Florida’s McKay scholarship program for children with disabilities—which DeVos tried to defend before being cut off in questioning at her nomination hearing—has very high satisfaction levels among parents using it. Public schools, in contrast, get taxpayer money no matter what, and require seemingly endless political, bureaucratic, and legal combat to hopefully—just hopefully—get improvements made.

Of course, choice needs freedom from stultifying rules and regulations to be meaningful. Specialization, competition, innovation—none can meaningfully exist without educators having the freedom to engage in new and different ways of delivering education.

The powerful inclination to wrap programs in incapacitating layers of red tape…er, “accountability”…is a major reason that the federal government should not try to deliver school choice, or govern education at all. (The Constitution is the other big one.) It is simply too dangerous to have one government—the federal government—supply choice nationwide. But there is good reason to fear that the Trump administration will try to do it nonetheless, based on Trump’s promise to make a  $20 billion choice “investment.”

Empowering parents with choice is the right way to deliver education. But the clear and present danger of freedom-smothering rules and regulations, as we’ve seen brightly illustrated by the debate over DeVos, accompanies any government funds. Which is why choice must not be delivered by Washington.

Will 2017 Be Another Year of Educational Choice?

It’s National School Choice Week, so it’s a good time to survey the countryside and see what’s in store for the year ahead.

Last year was relatively quiet in terms of school choice legislation. South Dakota enacted a relatively limited tax-credit scholarship program and Maryland enacted a small voucher program, but there wasn’t much progress otherwise. 

By contrast, 2015 was the Year of Educational Choice. Not only did 15 states adopt 21 new or expanded educational choice programs, three of them enacted education savings account (ESA) laws. As I’ve noted previously, ESAs represent a move from school choice to educational choice because families can use ESA funds to pay for a lot more than just private school tuition. Parents can use the ESA funds for tutors, textbooks, homeschool curricula, online classes, educational therapy, and more. They can also save unused funds for future educational expenses, including college.

Already, several states this year are considering ESA legislation. Last week, legislators in Arkansas introduced a universal-eligibility, tax-credit funded ESA similar to what Jonathan Butcher and I described in our report last year, “Taking Credit for Education.” Donors would receive tax credits for contributions to nonprofit scholarship organizations that would fund the ESAs. According to a just-released study from Julie Trivitt and Corey DeAngelis of the University of Arkansas, if enacted, the ESA would expand educational choice while saving taxpayers an estimated $2.8 million.

This week, the Missouri Senate Education Committee will hold a hearing on a bill to create tax-credit funded ESA, similar to the Arkansas bill described above. Missouri will also consider publicly funded ESAs, as well as other choice proposals.

Other states considering publicly funded ESAs include Indiana, Iowa, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, and Texas. I’ve also heard that Arizona legislators are considering expanding their ESA, possibly to include all Arizona students. Meanwhile, in Nevada, Gov. Sandoval is looking to find ways to fund his state’s ESA after the state supreme court upheld the constitutionality of the program but struck down its funding mechanism

Several states will also be considering tax-credit scholarship programs, including Kentucky, Nebraska, and (likely) Texas. In addition, South Carolina is looking to expand its tax credit.

I’m likely missing a number of proposals, and it will be tough to top 2015, but 2017 very well might be the Year of Educational Choice, Jr.

Fed Ed Failure File Just Got Fatter

In the aftermath of Betsy DeVos’s confirmation hearing—but really, anytime someone’s talking about federal education policy—it is important to look at evidence. Today we’ve got several items to add to the evidence pile, none of them good for fed ed.

The first is a new report on the School Improvement Grants program, an initiative aimed at turning around troubled schools with various possible interventions ranging from replacing principals to closing schools. What did the report find? The multi-billion dollar undertaking “had no impact on math or reading test scores, high school graduation, or college enrollment.”

Next, to higher education. A Wall Street Journal article today reports that the U.S. Department of Education widely overstated the repayment rate of student loans. Indeed, when the Journal recalculated the numbers, “the data revealed that the Department previously had inflated the repayment rates for 99.8% of all colleges and trade schools in the country.” The problem, according to an education department spokesperson cited in the article: a programming error.

Finally, we come to Navient, a company that exists largely on a contract to service student loans for the U.S. Department of Education. Yesterday the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB)—itself a big federal fiasco—announced that it was suing Navient for deceptive and exploitative practices it allegedly undertook to cut costs and maximize revenues.

The CFPB isn’t entirely known for its own straight shooting, so Navient should get the benefit of the doubt. But it is certainly plausible that this government-privileged company takes advantage of its largely captive clientele. And who is Navient’s mother, by the way? Why none other than Sallie Mae—the company was spun off from Sallie in 2014—which was originally a government-sponsored enterprise like Fannie and Freddie, created by Washington to buy and service student loans in 1972.

In her confirmation hearing, Betsy DeVos pretty consistently indicated an aversion to federal power. The evidence is on her side, and growing every day.

(In)digesting the DeVos Confirmation Hearing

I got my dinner and a show last night. The dinner was fine, but the show? Not so great. Not much substance was covered in the DeVos confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee, and when meaty issues were brought up they were too often smothered in gotcha questions and commentary rather than meaningful discussion.

A good part of the hearing was occupied by bickering over each committee member only getting one, five-minute questioning period, and whether or not that was committee tradition or an effort by the GOP majority to protect the witness. Maybe that’s insightful stuff if you care about the politics of all this—though I doubt it—but it doesn’t tell us one whit about where the nominee stands on the federal role in education.

The good news is that when DeVos was asked about her views on federal policy, she was deferential to states and districts. I don’t recall her stating resolutely that the Constitution leaves ed power to the states and the people—she stated little resolutely—but she hit the right notes. Included in that was telling committee chair Lamar Alexander (R-TN) that she would not use the power of her office to try to coerce school choice. She said she would try to convince Congress to push choice—an unconstitutional goal, but at least using the constitutionally correct process—but she would not try to do it unilaterally.

Victory for Kids: School Choice Safe in Florida

This morning the Supreme Court of Florida declined to hear McCall v. Scott, the Florida teachers’ union lawsuit against the state’s popular scholarship tax credit, which helps nearly 100,000 low-income students attend the school of their choice. That means the lower court’s decision dismissing the lawsuit stands, and the law is safe from further challenge on these grounds.

As I wrote back in August, the union and its allies had alleged that the scholarship program unconstitutionally supported a “parallel” system of public education and violated the state constitution’s historically anti-Catholic Blaine Amendment, which prohibits publicly funding religious schools. However, the trial court judge rejected this claim, holding that the plaintiffs lacked standing to sue because the scholarships were privately (not publicly) funded and that they were unable to prove that the scholarship program adversely impacted the district school system. The union appealed but the appellate court unanimously upheld the lower court decision. (For a more detailed explanation of the history of the case and the tax credit, see here.) Today’s state supreme court decision is the proverbial nail in the coffin for the union’s legal challenge.

Supporters of the scholarship program expressed their satisfaction this morning:

“The court has spoken, and now is the time for us all to come together to work for the best interests of these children,” Doug Tuthill, [president of Step Up for Students, Florida’s largest scholarship organization], said in a statement. “We face enormous challenges with generational poverty, and we need all hands on deck.”

After the lawsuit was filed in 2014, supporters of the program — including parents and clergy members — waged a full-court press supporting the program. Almost exactly a year ago, they staged a massive rally in Tallahassee.

“On behalf of all the scholarship children, their families and their clergy in the Save Our Scholarships coalition, I commend the state Supreme Court on their wise application of the law,” Reverend R.B. Holmes of Bethel Missionary Baptist Church in Tallahassee, said in a statement. “We look forward to working together with all parties to improve the educational outcomes of low income children in our state.”

School choice is safe in Florida. But just north of the panhandle, Georgia’s scholarship tax credit faces a similar legal challenge. Oral arguments in Gaddy v. Georgia Department of Revenue are scheduled for next week, which just happens to be National School Choice Week. For justice to prevail, the Georgia Supreme Court should dismiss that case as well.